The Five Biggest Onsite Technology Mistakes
By Joe Bousquin
Jared Miller has a guiding principle when it comes to rolling out onsite technology at apartment communities: It must shorten his onsite staff's "To-Do" list, not make it longer.
“What you’re really trying to do is take things away, not add them,” says Miller, Chief Operating Officer at Denver-based RedPeak, a manager of more than 2,200 apartment homes. “We’ve made a commitment that we’re not going to roll out any technology unless it eases the burden of our onsite staff.”
Leveraging technology to help onsite staff do their jobs more efficiently is a must to compete in the apartment industry today. Property, revenue, and reputation management systems, as well as other staff-facing solutions, are supposed to make life easier and result in efficiency gains across a portfolio. But the difference between getting onsite technology right, and making a mistake out of the gate, can negatively affect a community’s operations for months, if not years.
Here are five of the biggest mistakes operators and onsite staff make with technology and how to avoid them.
Mistake # 1: Not Providing Enough Upfront and Ongoing Training
While the need for training with any new technology is critical, many operators say it’s easy to give it short shrift in the rush to take a solution live. As rental housing software programs continue to change, training is necessary not only upfront, but periodically, as well.
“These systems are complex. They have many functions. You need to give onsite staff robust training in the beginning, and then refreshers over time,” says Dan Wurtzel, President of FirstService Residential New York, which manages approximately 20,000 rental apartments and 50,000 co-op and condo units.
“The training has to be ongoing because these systems are always evolving.” For example, the rollout of a Yardi platform for onsite staff might start with a 90-minute hands-on class to dive into relevant features. From there, a supervisor might pick supplemental webinars about specific functions applicable to the property--whether it be maintenance reporting, rent rolls or leasing--and have staff complete them one to three times per year.
Wurtzel also says that as technology plays a bigger role in how properties are run, the type and number of staff members who need training has increased.
“You might have a doorman or superintendent who now needs to learn certain programs as part of their job,” Wurtzel says. “Whether that’s a package tracking system, security system, or resident notification system, there’s a new subset of your property management staff who need to know the technology.”
Mistake #2: Not Getting Onsite Buy-In
A deceptively easy mistake to make with onsite technology is leaving frontline staff out of the conversation.
“The mistakes we’ve made in the past have been driven by the fact that we didn’t get onsite buy-in at the start,” says Miller. “No matter how in tune you think you are with what’s happening onsite, you can’t roll it out from the corporate office. You have to let your onsite people test it and try to break it. Getting their thoughts and feedback is critical to being successful.”
For example, early in Miller’s career, he was tasked with migrating 135 assets onto a new property management system within 90 days.
“That was a mistake because we made a wholesale technology change, and we did it from the top down,” he says. “We didn’t consider the impact on that site-level person, which, when you think about it, is really our internal customer.”
Says Janette Miles, Manager of Learning and Development at Oakland, Calif.-based MYND Property Management, which manages 3,500 West Coast units, “Creating goodwill with your onsite staff is critical for adoption. We’re constantly polling them to get their feedback, and that pays off when they see their ideas included in a new rollout.”
For example, MYND’s resident services associates often field the same three questions from different residents through its property management system: how much is my rent; when’s it due; and how do I move out? While it only took a few minutes to respond, staff were doing so 20 to 30 times a day toward the end of the month.
So Miles’ team asked them what the 10 most common questions were that they received, as well as the typical responses. Then, they built response templates for those questions into MYND’s property management system. “Now, all they have to do is select the appropriate template, personalize the response, and click send,” Miles says.
Mistake #3: Not Having a Point Person to Oversee It.
In some ways, with the proliferation of new technology in the apartment industry during the past 15 years, operators and onsite staff are almost bombarded with new systems and tools to “help” them do their jobs. For example, maintenance requests from residents that are sent directly to onsite staff through a property management system. But if there’s not a traffic cop to make sure the technology doesn’t run staff over, it can all be for naught.
“Technology doesn’t always prioritize things the way a human being might,” says Stuart Zelmanovitz, Principal at Monsey, N.Y.-based Yellowstone Property Group, which manages 10 buildings in the New York area. “If you have a service tech getting requests directly from residents, they might go to change a light bulb, because that’s the first thing on their list, rather than fix a backed-up toilet, which they’re not seeing. So, it’s still important that there’s some top-down direction when it comes to scheduling and time management.”
At Chicago-based Draper & Kramer, which manages 10,000 units, Director of Marketing Jim Love has taken that approach to help his staff with one of the biggest onsite headaches in apartments today: Reputation management.
While responding to negative online reviews is typically an area where frontline knowledge is required, having onsite staff respond can be problematic, particularly when emotions are involved.
“Responding to online reviews is public and permanent, unlike a phone conversation or meeting in the property office,” Love says. “You get posts where people include a staff member’s name, and say, ‘You did a horrible job.’ You’re left to hope onsite staff sees the comment in a timely way, and drafts a professional response that doesn’t get emotional.”
For that reason, Draper & Kramer has deployed a communications and alert solution that notifies Love directly of any online feedback, positive or negative, that he can then review. Next, working with a designated point person onsite at each property, he can help them craft a response that’s both appropriate, and on brand, for the larger Draper & Kramer portfolio.
“That onsite person knows what the details are that led to the complaint and can give you the other side of the story and you learn what actually happened,” Love says. “Then from my end, I can create a response that’s on brand and appropriate, while taking out the emotional involvement. It makes managing the reputation of that property a lot easier.”
Mistake #4: Onsite Staff Don’t Know the “Why” Behind the Technology
At Washington, D.C.-based Oculus Realty, which was an early adopter of everything from iPads for onsite staff to Nest smart thermostats for its residents and is now implementing the Tour24 app for self-guided, electronic access apartment tours, one early misstep was rolling out technology without letting onsite staff know why the implementation was happening.
“Everyone on the team needs to understand what the goal is,” says David Meit, President and CEO. “You’ve got to let them know that you’re simply trying to implement a new tool to help them reach the same goals they’ve always had: High occupancy, good customer service and driving NOI. It’s just adding a new tool to help them do that.”
Says Miller, “Not illustrating to onsite staff what the benefits are on their side, and what’s in it for them if we make this change, is a huge mistake. It’s going to be a lot choppier, a lot bumpier, and the efficiency you were hoping to get is going to take a lot longer to materialize.”
For example, Miller says he often sees onsite technology changes that are driven by the accounting team in the corporate office. When that happens, buy-in and acceptance from onsite staff are hard to come by.
“Maybe someone decides to change to Yardi, or whatever the case may be, without thinking of how that’s going to impact the day-to-day operations onsite,” Miller says. “You need to make sure it makes the onsite staffs’ job easier first, because that’s where the profit center is. It’s not on the accounting side.”
Mistake #5: Thinking Technology Will Magically Change How Work is Done
At Yellowstone, Zelmanovitz sees one mistake that onsite staff and property managers repeatedly make with technology: Assuming it is a magic bullet that will change the work that they do.
“At the end of the day, how an apartment building is physically run hasn’t changed that much,” Zelmanovitz says. “A toilet is still a toilet. Plumbing is still plumbing. The technology is not changing the guts of the building. But technology does change the flow of information through the building, and communicating what has to be done.”
Adjusting your staff and processes to align with that flow of information, so they can do the jobs they’ve always done more efficiently, is the real magic bullet.
“The real winner in this whole technology game is going to be whoever figures out the most intuitive system that integrates with how apartment buildings are actually managed today,” he says.
By avoiding these mistakes, apartment operators can put onsite technology in place that helps, rather than hinders, frontline staff from getting their jobs done